Sunday, October 16, 2016

Sean Scully, Metal @ Galerie Lelong

Image de l'exposition
Sean Scully, Wall Bloom, 2016
In yet another wonderful exhibition at Galerie Lelong, this selection of works by the Irish-American artist Sean Scully’s gleams brightly as we approach the gallery space. The distinction of these paintings is their support: steel, aluminium and copper. I had no idea how radically the support can change not just the substance of painting, but the context, meaning, and understanding of the medium applied to it. This is to say nothing of the veritable luminosity given to works in which steel and paint merge on the surface.
Scully’s work is often talked about for its reference to natural landscapes and/or built environments. This is because it’s the discourse he gives to the vertical and horizontal colour bands, blocks and stripes that have filled his canvases for more than fifty years. While these narratives may explain Scully’s vast body of works on canvas, everything changes with the use of metal supports. From the start, when paint is applied to metal, the result is always about speed, surface, and transparency. Standing before the paintings we see paint and steel coming together to create something that exists nowhere but on the surface of the paintings – unless we want to call them painted sculpture. We see brushstrokes sliding across and over the surface, turning, changing their minds, abruptly stopping and moving elsewhere.

Image de l'exposition
Sean Scully, Wall Brown Pink, 2015
The resultant effect of paint on steel are works in which the paint becomes distilled to strokes that reminded me of Roy Lichtenstein’s giant brushstrokes. Somewhere between abstract expressionism and pop art, paint on metal in Scully's works is luscious and simultaneously empty. I never got the sense that there was anything behind the strokes. Gone are the order and symmetry that so often forced the viewing of Scully’s works on canvas, and in their place, a whole different set of rhythms and movements are introduced by steel, copper and aluminium.

While on the one hand, metal reduces paint to sliding strokes, on the other hand, the two, sculpture and painting become fused. The merger of sculpture and painting in the works on the walls is confirmed by the sumptuous colours of a rusted corten steel column in the middle of the exhibition. The sculpture is made of layers of steel placed one in top of the other, each panel clearly having lived a different history from the others. Each horizontal strips of rusted steel is quite different, and thereby, becomes like the building blocks of paint on the works on the walls. Paint and steel thus are fused, interchangeable.

Image de l'exposition
Sean Scully, Figure, 2013
Lastly, I have to say, my favourite piece in the exhibition was a stunning work called Figure from 2013. Grey of varying darkness and density blocks are hastily painted on an aluminium ground. The dripping paint at the bottom of the painted area, the uneven edges, and the luminosity of grey on aluminium made paint as colour float above what appeared to be rubbed metal. There was something Rothko-like in the tension between three-dimensional shapes on a two-dimensional surface without Rothko's fastidious working over. The effect is one that shows Scully’s ability to create absence of all reference to substance, to anything behind the surface, removing all depth to the image, and simultaneously, filling it with movement, drama and dimensionality.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Kate MccGwire, Scissure @ La Galerie Particulière

See original image
Kate MccGwire, Covert, 2014

I had resisted going to see this exhibition because the image in the publicity material (Covert) is so creepy. The feather-covered organic form curling around and under itself reminded me of a swan with its head tucked inside its plumage, busy cleaning. Why is that creepy? Because there is no head, claws, or any other body part that might make the form resemble a bird. Add to this that what I thought was a bell jar, but is actually an antique glass dome, is placed over the top and appears to suffocate the “bird.” Face to face, the object is no less unsettling, but it is also infinitely more complex than my response of repulsion would allow for. The meticulously made feathered object sits on a bed of bones that are—somehow—at one and the same time comfortable and violating. The feathers are so sensual that I wanted to stroke them, and yet, as the press release suggests, they are so alive and fresh that it feels as though the creature will break out of its glass dome any minute. I couldn’t help being reminded of Hitchcock’s Birds: the threat that always looms large in the presence of these uncanny creatures.
"Scissure (Chasm), (breach)", 2014 de Kate MccGwire - Courtesy Galerie Particulière © Photo Éric Simon
Kate MccGwire, Scissure (Breach), 2014
To me, MccGwire’s work is not only erotic, but another dimension that makes it both compelling, disturbing, frightening and powerful is that it is all about violence and subjugation of women. There’s nothing written about this in the material I glanced at, but it’s difficult to look at Pelt or Sissure and not see vaginal imagery. The small cut bones that line the incision in leather or a feather down are vagina dentate, about to consume whatever comes near them. But even the less obvious imagery reminded me of women being beaten. The soft sensuous curves of other pieces, tightly coiled to protect themselves from their oppressor, or cowering in the face of abuse—it’s hard to tell which—have titles such as Submit, Succumb, Pervade, and Acquiesce. To me the impossibility of the forms, the resilience of the feathers, the holes and incisions, the purity of the white figures, are all qualities that reveal the complexity and irresolveability of what it is to be a woman faced with violence. Even the squashing of Covert with the dome is a case of the making small and the oppression which can only be made to women. The forms are so obviously birds that cannot fly, whose wings have been cut, whose energy has been contained. The beauty and disgust of women’s body – the splendour and the fear of its power—are quelled again and again in MccGwire’s sculptures.

See original image
Kate MccGwire window display in Ginza Maison Hermès
The forms also fly between science and art, between culture and nature – never settling on one side or the other. Unsurprisingly, MccGwire’s work has been exhibited at the Musée de la Chasse and Natural History museums. These spaces would seem ideal locations for work that transgresses all boundaries between museum display and scientific curiosity. As objects in a gallery they are most strikingingly sculptures, but in their antique domes, they are also scientific displays or even curiosities. And the fact that she had a piece in the window of the Hermes store in Japan sees it move into discourses on consumerism as a mass of feathers spreads like a monster into the display window. Although very different in their movement and delivery of the threat, their monstrosity raises the Hitchcock reference again. However, unlike Hitchcokc’s birds MccGwire’s are still trapped, caught in the moment of anticipation where we are sure they are about to morph.

Kate MccGwire, Spill, 2016

There is something about the liveness of the feathers, that makes them always transforming. I think it’s also the coil like nature of the forms, the way they wrap themselves into knots as though they are in pain, contorting their bodies out of fear and anxiety. We too then feel this anxiety. MccGwire also talks in interview about wanting to make us see the birds differently: pigeons, crows, geese, and other birds we love to hate to varying degrees are all transformed here. By showing their brilliantly coloured or perfect white plumage, we are attracted to creatures we otherwise detest. And in the viscerality of our response, we cannot forget them, and yet, we don’t want to keep these uncanny creatures hanging around in our conscious or unconscious minds for fear of what they might turn into at any moment.

Images Courtesy The Artist 

Friday, September 30, 2016

Magritte. La Trahison des Images @ Centre Pompidou

See original image
René Magritte, Les Vacances de Hegel, 1958 
This exhibition is superb. I always complain about the blockbuster exhibitions at the Pompidou Centre and after seeing Magritte. La Trahison des Images, I am convinced my complaints are with good reason. Their smaller exhibitions are so much better thought out, more coherent, and like this one, provide an intelligent and innovative approach to an otherwise familiar body of work.

Even though there are various versions of Ceci n’est pas une Pipe and the famous painting is the Pompidou’s focus for a room devoted to the discrepancy between words and things, Magritte. La Trahison des Images convincingly demonstrates that Magritte was not only prolific, but that he did so much beyond this one canonical image. The diversity of images and concerns on display showed just how limited is or was my knowledge of Magritte’s painting (namely its Surrealist sympathies). The thrill of the exhibition is also made possible by the fact that so many of the works have been lent by private collectors, bringing a wealth of unknown images to the French public.

« En 1929, désireux d’affirmer l’égalité entre la peinture et la poésie, René Magritte déclare que “la poésie est une pipe”. André Breton et Paul Eluard s’enchantent eux-mêmes de cette formule. Cette même année, avec “La Trahison des images”, il affirme avec ironie que “ceci, la peinture, n’est pas une pipe, du pipeau, mais qu’elle peut prétendre au même sérieux que les vers de ses camarades”. »
René Magritte, La Trahison des Images (Ceci n'est pas une pipe), 1929
The exhibition is divided into five rooms, each of which is themed. For once the themed organization made sense. Although such curatorial organization usually irritates me, what makes it work for Magritte’s paintings is that his thinking is complex and varied from the start. There is not a chronological development to be traced in thinking or painting across his career. From the beginning he is preoccupied with the representation and expression of philosophical ideas that engage painting and aesthetics. Similarly, as a painter, he doesn’t develop in the way that others do. Indeed, it was interesting to see that even if the works are not particularly painterly, they are always well-painted, and stay that way throughout his career. The exhibition shows that Magritte had a keen sense of composition, color and the behavior of paint on a canvas. This also makes the works somewhat awkward to look at. Before the paintings we are looking at visual puzzles and visual rhymes. So it’s not as though we are looking at a beautiful painting whose magnificence can be contemplated. Nor does anything reveal itself over time. What we see is what we get. Though what we see is rarely transparent.

« C’est un abysse philosophique que Magritte déploie sous nos yeux, illustrant la logique implacable qui associe le début de toute chose à sa fin. »
René Magritte, Variante de la Tristesse, 1957

The four rooms, Words and Images, the Invention of Painting, the Allegory of the Cave, Curtains and Trompe l’Oeil/Composite Beauty each begin from the premise that Magritte was working in response to issues of aesthetics. The exhibition presents his work  as always being in the pursuit of the purpose of art and the primacy of the image over the word, or at the very least, equality. He is also preoccupied with the nature of representation, of the relationship between representation and reality, art and nature. In so many of the paintings, the two are indistinguishable. In a number of them, we see the sea, a landscape, a whole world as it exists behind the painting in the image, and across the same painting within the painting. Is the continuity mistaken? Or is the continuity just the point? That’s where the game begins. 
« En 1936, René Magritte peint un philosophe momentanément distrait de sa méditation sur la flamme d’une bougie. Associée à la lumière d’une bougie, la philosophie en question est celle qui, depuis Platon, discrédite les représentations artistiques du monde. “Les méditations du philosophe maniaque et distrait, un monde mental fermé sur lui-même, comme ici, un fumeur est le prisonnier de sa pipe.” »
René Magritte, La Lampe philosophique, 1936
In spite of the references to Plato, Pliny, classical perspective and representations of the self, Magritte is a painter who is absolutely of his time. Magritte’s conceptions of things and the relationship of painting to the world, his conception of art and representation, of women and the emptiness of their depiction in painting, all of these are truly modern. His interest in still life, the fascination with frames that double as entry ways to the (deception of the) visual world—picture frames, door frames, the abyss beyond/behind the painting and the door—all of which double as the surface of the painting, are modern because they have no interest in a compliance with everyday reality. In addition, all of the relationships he represents are shattered: that between the surface and the value of painting, the object and its image, art and nature, the self and its reflection which, in turn, doubles as the model and the portrait, and the list goes on. When we enter into Magritte’s world of doubt, uncertainty, and the setting free of reason to assume philosophical logic, it feels like nothing is quite as it should be. This, despite its sealed containment on a canvas, within the four sides of a frame.